Mindfulness in the Workplace
Mindfulness in the Workplace and Everywhere
I recently read an article about an organisational development expert called Rasmus Hougaard and his mindfulness program, “The Potential Project.” Rasmus Hougaard, a native of Denmark, is a world leader in mindfulness philosophy and, as a corporate consultant, he has trained authority figures in multinational companies like Novo Nordisk, General Electric, and Sony Corporation. He was in Australia this week to talk about the benefits of practicing mindfulness in workplaces.
What Is the Need for Mindfulness Training?
Let us consider some common present-day scenarios:
Dan boots up his office computer and goes directly to his inbox. He grins at me and says, “I can’t do without my morning coffee and the latest piece of office gossip!” He spends the next half an hour forwarding emails and thinking up funny replies to his co-workers before finally getting down to work.
Raji too has been to her inbox and she is now mulling over news from her cousins in India, even as she is working on some figures. She frowns over a mistake; oops, now she will have to check the columns right from the start.
Jennifer frequently updates her status. She checks her iPhone every now and then to see if her friends have posted any comments on her latest photo. Her boss, Bill, meanwhile, messages her asking for a report, and then returns to his phone conversation with his friend. Bill thinks he is multitasking and is proud of it!
The aforementioned scenarios are just a few examples of what’s happening in workplaces these days. Everyone is wired to the network and no one is free from the distractions of being a “social somebody.” And, like Bill, we connive ourselves into thinking that we are multitasking, that we can handle all the noise. The truth is what should have started as a productive day begins with reading aimless mails and office chitchat, the effects of which linger throughout the day. Starting the day checking your emails leads to wasted hours and leaves you with a distracted mind.
This is why Rasmus says corporate companies should include mindfulness training in their organisational development programmes. Companies lose millions of dollars every year due to employees getting caught up in the unnecessary distractions of reading their morning mail. Rasmus explains that the mind, by nature, tends to wander about half the time that we are awake. This means that we are not concentrating on our work half the time, which means half our day is wasted. To this end, businesses can benefit by training their staff in positive and mindful workplace techniques, which will result in a happier and more productive work environment.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not a new concept. Yoga, Buddhist teachings, Zen, and Tao, have their basis in mindfulness. While many religions around the world stress on worship by means of rituals, Buddhism, in particular, and its many offshoots (like Zen and Tao) emphasised meditation. Meditation trains a person to focus on the task at hand, concentrating on the now and the present, and not to get distracted by other people or the surrounding noise. Buddhists used mindfulness as a way of life and this was reflected in their interpersonal relationships and creativity. Take, martial arts, for instance. Many of you might have seen documentaries or at least movies of the legendary martial artist and movie star Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee incorporated mindfulness in his fighting technique. Bruce Lee was also famous for his philosophical way of teaching. He always put his lessons across to his students with a sage saying. Here’s one that reflects mindfulness: “Do not be tense, just be ready, not thinking but not dreaming, not being set but being flexible. It is being “wholly” and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.”
Time for me, I think, to tell you a story. Not about Bruce Lee, but Buddha.
A friend of mine once told me a beautiful story about Buddha and one of his disciples. It is an often-repeated tale, but I think it is worth mentioning here.
Buddha and his disciples led a wandering life, going from one village to another. Once, they happened to pass by a village with a lake. They decide to stop awhile there. A man approaches Buddha saying he has many troubles in life – his mind is distracted and burdened by weighty thoughts; he wanted to leave all the cares of his life behind and become his disciple. Buddha merely smiles but accepts him in his fold anyway.
Buddha feels thirsty and he asks his new disciple to get some water from the lake. Just at that moment, a bullock cart crosses the lake and the water becomes muddy. Buddha’s disciple returns and tells his master that the water is muddy and not fit to drink. After a while, Buddha asks the same disciple to get water for him. Again, the disciple returns empty-handed saying the water is still muddy. Time passes, and Buddha again asks the disciple to get him water. The disciple obeys, and this time, when he goes to the lake, he sees that the mud has settled down and the water is clear. The disciple gently collects the clear water in a bowl and brings it to Buddha.
Buddha looks at the man and says, “Do you understand now? You let the water be and the mud settled down on its own. Your mind is just the same. When you are disturbed, give the mind time to settle. It is as simple as that!”
To explain the parable, our mind is the lake, the water in the lake stands for our thoughts, and the bullock cart running through the lake stands for the distractions. When there are no more bullock carts crossing, the water became still. Similarly, when there are no outside influences to disturb us, our thoughts, like the water in the lake, will not be distracted and our mind will be calm and we will be able to concentrate on the task at hand. Training the mind to concentrate as well as learning to become alert and detached at the same time is what mindfulness is all about.
While mindfulness is said to have originated from Buddhist meditation practices, it has of late become very significant in modern psychology too.
Here is a rather simple textbook definition for mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is a psychological quality that involves paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Or, in plain words, mindfulness is concentrating on a job by giving it the full attention.
Now, with all the distractions of modern working life – email, telephones, cell phones, and every gadget that any self-respecting employee carries these days, giving full and complete attention to one’s job seems virtually impossible. Or is there another way to have the cake and eat it too?
Emails Are for Mindful Paperless Communication!
“How can I work without emails? That’s how we get the work done!” True, today we all work in near paperless offices. Emails are a fast and convenient medium for passing on messages accurately, which you can refer back to when in doubt, and search and find at an instant. Emails are a record of work happening around in the office. If only emails were used just for work purposes! Unfortunately, that is not is the case, and emails can prove to be distractions and oftentimes seem like harbingers of bad news. You may get a mail from a co-worker about a rumour doing the rounds – that you may not be getting your much-expected promotion, or that a contract fell through, or someone else is seeing the person that you have been meaning to ask out. Later, you may find that the rumour was just that, and you had been worrying needlessly.
Since you can’t do without emails, what organisational psychologists suggest is to put off checking emails until you have cleared off some of the other important work. This will not only head start your workday, but you will also have a stress-free morning. When you have cleared off some work, your mind will already be in a “work mode.” Needless to say, you will check only the more important work-related emails and put off reading the other ones – the jokes people forward to each other, for instance.
For all the online social butterflies out there, all I can say is, log off from Facebook or Twitter when you are at work and try resisting the spell of Pinterest during breaks. You will see that you have become more efficient and more creative, and you will find that you are finishing up work quickly too.
Role of Mindfulness in Daily Life
With all of this talk about businesses benefiting from employee productivity through their workplace mindfulness, you might wonder what the employee gets out of it. Notwithstanding the direct benefits of efficiency, mindfulness also reduces stress and improves well-being.
There has been considerable scientific research in the past 20 years on the subject of mindfulness and its application in the field of clinical psychology. Research indicates that mindfulness methods help in treating not only stress, anxiety, or depression, but also is beneficial in other unlikely areas including the treatment of chronic pain, and eating disorders.
In people who do not have these psychological or physiological conditions, mindfulness still has a positive effect. People practising mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, show increased brain function as well as an ameliorated immune system with a quicker recovery from commonplace illnesses, such as the common cold. With reduced stress and anxiety, people stop complaining of ailments like headaches and they are generally happy with their lot. Happy people are typically more productive and more enthusiastic about what they do. Studies have also shown that mindfulness improves academic performances as well.
There are many mindfulness techniques out there and at least two of them are popular with many psychotherapists and their clients too, especially because of their interesting acronyms. They are RAIN and STOP. I will put them forth briefly and you can try them for yourself and see if they are as interesting as they sound and if they work for you.
I came across this in a book on Buddhist psychology by Jack Kornfield. This technique helps you to recognize a strong emotional situation, such as fear or uncontrollable anxiety about something, anger, or grief, and provides you with a technique to come out of it.
R – Recognise the emotion. Look at your situation as if you are someone else viewing it from outside. This allows you to rationally recognise what you are going through.
A – Acknowledge to yourself that you are indeed having a difficult time. When a negative situation arises, we typically move away and don’t face it. Acknowledging a negative emotion allows you to come out from denial and face the situation.
I – Investigate the cause of your situation. Ask yourself questions as to why you are in this situation and find the true reason.
N – Non-identify with the experience and free yourself from it. We are our worst enemies. Even if others empathise with us, we are rarely kind to ourselves – our own consciousness wouldn’t allow us to free ourselves from suffering. Non-identifying means detaching yourself from the emotion, and working towards resolving the situation.
You can use this technique to work on the stressors of day to day life. You may have a deadline that you fear you will miss; your teenage son or daughter has been unruly or acting rebellious, or has simply brought home a very poor report card; your spouse is fighting with you over what you think is a silly matter; whatever it is, if you are in an anxious or stressful situation, and you think, as one of my clients simply puts it, you are going to “lose it,” I encourage you to try this:
S – Stop whatever job or action you are doing.
T – Take some deep breaths and give yourself time to think. Buddhist psychology gurus may ask you to “meditate.” I suggest something simple, something from my childhood – what my dad told me to do whenever I become angry. Count to 10. You could also count your breathing. This allows you to detach yourself from the stressor. If you think you are going to miss a deadline, “losing it” could hardly help you. You might as well keep your cool.
O – Observe what is happening as if you are looking from the outside. Determine what is going on with you; what exactly are you feeling and what you are going to do about it. If your son or daughter has poor grades, instead of shouting about it, think about what could help him or her out of this tight spot.
P – Proceed with the positive action that you decided on the previous step and go about the rest of the day with a feeling of achievement.
To summarise, mindfulness is not just a fancy term invented by organizational psychologists for the sake of bettering businesses; it is an age-old practice that has worked well for individuals as well. Inculcating mindfulness practices not just in your workplace but also in your daily activities makes for a happier, healthier you.
There! I have left you with plenty to think about today. What are you going to do about it?